June 7, 2017
At first sight, the case of Reality Leigh Winner, a United States federal contractor who has been charged with leaking classified information to a news outlet, is an open-and-shut case. Winner, an expert linguist with a top-secret clearance, who provided services to the National Security Agency through a private contractor, appears to have admitted to the Federal Bureau of Investigation that she deliberately leaked classified information without permission. She is believed to have told the FBI that she printed and mailed a single document containing classified information to a news outlet on or around May 9 of this year.
Although it is too early to tell with certainty, Winner does not appear to have acted in search of money or other material benefits, nor does she appear to have operated as an agent of a foreign government. She told her interrogators that she acted solely out of a sense of duty to the American people. However, US law does not typically distinguish between leakers based on their motives. It does, however, distinguish between simple leakers and whistleblowers. If a US government employee uncovers evidence of abuse of power, or becomes aware of a specific and critical threat to the security of Americans, he or she is required to notify his or her superiors. If the latter refuse to take action, then the employee is justified under the law in taking all necessary actions to warn the public of impending peril. That is precisely the function of the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act, which affords protection to insiders who expose abuses of authority, or a concrete and critical threat to public safety.
IS WINNER A WHISTLEBLOWER?
It does not appear that Winner contacted her superiors prior to leaking classified information to the media. Nor does it appear that the leaked information pertained to a clear and present danger to the security of the public. It would follow that Winner cannot at present be classified as a whistleblower. It is worth keeping in mind, however, that Americans are traditionally skeptical of government. Often, therefore, government whistleblowers —people who expose…